Meta: Facebook gambles on a virtual world

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After weeks of rumours, Mark Zuckerberg revealed his big news last week, said Chris Stokel-Walker in The Independent: henceforward, his company will be known as Meta. The name, from the Greek for beyond, represents the type of firm he wants Facebook to be, he said: not just the owner of a suite of social media apps (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram), but a key player in the “next chapter for the internet”: the metaverse – a virtual world that he is spending billions to create. As he explained in a promotional video, users (or their avatars) will spend hours in this “embodied internet”: they’ll work in virtual offices, attend virtual gigs, relax with friends in virtual landscapes, buy from virtual shops. He hopes it will one day be populated by a billion people. And maybe it will – but I won’t be donning a VR headset to hang out in Zuckerberg’s world. It’s not just that the graphics are rubbish and I’ve spent time in an earlier digital world – Second Life – that proved a dud: it’s also that I am not going to entrust any more of my life to rapacious tech titans.

The metaverse is still only a concept; it will take “years to come to fruition”, said Sarah Manavis in the New Statesman. And it may not take off. People may decide they prefer to live in the real world. So why rebrand around it now? It is no coincidence that in the past month, Facebook has been battered by negative stories stemming from the leak of the “Facebook papers”. Seventeen years after its founding, the firm stands accused of a host of misdeeds, from knowingly exacerbating teenage misery to enabling human traffickers. Zuckerberg will be hoping that the old Facebook can take the hit for all that while the wider company sails on.

Yet by revealing his ambition to “own” this vast new digital realm, Zuckerberg is surely only inviting more scrutiny, said Kevin Roose in The New York Times. So what is his thinking? Partly, he will be hoping that the focus on VR will attract all-important young users to a company that has come to be seen as terminally uncool. It could also help solve Facebook’s “platform risk”: its mobile apps run on iOS and Android, which makes their success dependent on Facebook’s rivals Apple and Google. The metaverse would enable Facebook to keep users, and their money, on its own territory. Thirdly it gives the company a shiny new story, to attract staff and advertisers, who have been deterred by the toxification of the brand. For Zuckerberg, the metaverse isn’t a “vanity stunt”; it represents his route out of Facebook’s “messy present”, and towards fresh, untainted ground.

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